Lost World

By staff July 1, 2006

Though names have been changed, everyone in the story is a real person who was homeless in Sarasota this spring.

I had arranged to meet Rick in front of Resurrection House, a social service agency for the homeless that's located on the picturesquely named Kumquat Court, just north of downtown. A friend who knew a number of homeless people had introduced me to him, and he had agreed to be my guide for a day and a night as I pretended to be homeless myself. I was dressed in a baggy pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, a battered green baseball cap, and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. I blended in pretty well, but I wished I'd worn a dirtier T-shirt.

Rick was late, so I spent the time watching people enter and leave the building. The men heavily outnumbered the women, and whites outnumbered blacks. There were very few Hispanics, which puzzled me until it was explained that most of the agencies require a pretty strict ID. Typically, the people had that reddened, leathery look that comes from spending too much time outdoors, and many had some sort of injury-a bandaged hand, a black eye, even a broken leg. Missing teeth were common. One woman in particular caught my eye. She had on a tight-fitting leopard-print top, and her breasts were different sizes. What might have been comic under other circumstances took on the air of an unhappy medical condition.

After half an hour, Rick had still not arrived and I was getting worried. As I debated what to do, a man rode up on his bicycle. Fiftyish, thin and beaten-looking, he sized me up and then began to ask questions about Resurrection House.

I explained what I knew. You could get food, they would wash your clothes, they gave you clothes if you needed them, you could take a shower. You could even receive phone calls.

We introduced ourselves. His name was Larry, and he had just gotten out of prison. "Where have you been sleeping?" I asked.

"Any old ditch I can find," he told me. But his luck had changed. He'd met a man who offered him a room, up on Ninth Street behind Popeyes Chicken, in exchange for mowing the grass and other chores. He hesitated a moment and then suggested that maybe we could share. There was something touching in Larry's hesitant offer, a reaching out for companionship and-even more important-an ally.

I said I would if my buddy Rick didn't show up, and then offered to watch Larry's bike as he went into Resurrection House to register. This, I was already learning, was the first rule of being homeless: Watch your stuff at all times.

Larry entered. I could see him at the desk, showing the woman his prison ID.

All of a sudden Rick came running up, almost 45 minutes late. "What happened?" I asked.

"I fell asleep behind a dumpster," he said.

What I soon learned about being homeless is that the simplest chore becomes a monumental undertaking. Today, Rick's problem was his ID. He had lent it to someone under vague circumstances-some sort of security deposit, it sounded like-and he had yet to get it back. Without it he could not get into Resurrection House ("the Res," as he called it) or the Salvation Army ("the Sally").

But he had a plan. If we went to the police department and declared it stolen, he could get another one. He had apparently used this ruse before and knew exactly how to do it. So I waved to Larry through the window. He came out and took possession of his bike, and Rick and I were off.

As we walked, he told me about himself. He was 27, from a working-class suburb of Detroit. His parents were divorced. His father, a Vietnam vet, was a factory worker nearing retirement. His stepmother was religious. He had not made contact with them lately and had no plans to do so; it would only prove what they had always thought-that he was a lazy bum.

We stopped at the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen for lunch. It seemed to be unique in that it didn't ask for ID; anybody who shows up gets a hot lunch, no questions asked. The day's menu included shepherd's pie, pasta salad, green beans, cookies for dessert and the weak orange drink that seems to be everywhere that food is offered to the homeless.

Rick was turning out to be surprisingly good company. He was gregarious and full of interesting questions. His manners were impeccable-it was "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am." He knew everyone. When he introduced me, he told people, "His old lady kicked him out when she caught him smoking crack," an explanation accepted with no further questions. Indeed, several men nodded their heads ruefully. The same thing had happened to them.

After lunch we continued on our journey. It was a long walk but not unpleasant. We passed the townspeople on Main Street and attracted no attention. Rick was clean and well dressed today. He was wearing some clothes he'd gotten from the Res-a madras shirt ("Ralph Lauren," he told me proudly) and a pair of Oakley shorts, just the kind I'd been looking for. We made a deal-he'd sell them to me, price to be determined. But there were several clues to his way of life if you studied him closely enough-the reddened skin, the arms covered with tattoos.

"How do you like it so far?" Rick asked.

"It's not so bad."

"Wait 'til tonight. That's when the freaks come out."

We arrived at the police station around 1 p.m. The policewoman at the desk knew Rick; she had stopped him several times and knew he was homeless. Rick stumbled over his story. He made the mistake of telling her the ID might be lost. That meant he would have to pay $15 for its replacement.

Rick and the policewoman argued for a while. We were sent to another office, then sent back. It seemed there was no way around paying the $15.

I sat in the lobby listening to this with a growing sense of apprehension. If Rick had no ID, we couldn't stay at the Salvation Army. We would have to sleep in a hobo camp in the woods. I didn't have a blanket or a sleeping bag. The thought of ants crawling over me was starting a panic attack.

Even though I had promised myself I would not direct or stage manage anything that might happen, I took Rick aside. "Please," I begged. "I'll pay the $15."

"No!" he hissed. "We need it for weed."

The role that drugs play in Sarasota's "homeless problem" is controversial but impossible to gauge with certainty. During that day I met many people who had become homeless for a host of reasons other than drugs. Larry, for instance, was straight out of prison with no place to go. Many owed their misfortunes to an illness or accident. Gerald had been injured in a car accident and was trying to prove he was disabled. To do this he couldn't hold down a job, of course; he was living on the streets while waiting for his legal case to proceed. Tony, who had been partially paralyzed on his left side due to a brain aneurysm, was living on a disability payment of slightly over $500 a month. Nate had also had an aneurysm; he was young and looked middle class, but his injury had left him, as Rick put it, "mental." He spent most of his days at the library, looking up things on the Internet.

I asked Rick several times his best guess of what percentage of Sarasota's homeless had drug or alcohol problems, and each time he came up with the figure of 70 percent. Of course, many of these problems were in abeyance at any given time. Several people proudly told me how long they had been sober, with periods lasting from one day to "nine months, four days and 11 hours."

Rick was clearly part of the 70 percent. His problem was crack. He could go for days without it, but sooner or later he would come across some and give in. He had been on a binge just the night before; hence the nap behind the dumpster.

Rick readily acknowledged his drug problems but seemed to be procrastinating when it came to doing anything about them. The Salvation Army offers several programs for people who are ready to quit, but Rick wasn't interested. He said he wants to quit eventually; he just doesn't want to quit yet.

Crack is common in Rick's world. It's even used as a form of currency, along with cash, cigarettes, food, joints and anything else of immediate value, including those little discs from Checkers that entitle you to a free hamburger.

We encountered drugs several times that afternoon. As we stood on the street, less than a block from the Salvation Army, someone passed around a joint. Later a guy rode up on a bicycle. People recognized him, and a small crowd of six or seven quickly gathered. He pulled out some little pellets of crack and a drug deal took place.

Once crack had been introduced, the mood of the group changed, in a way that frightened me. Smoking crack was one thing; smoking it on 10th Street in broad daylight with all the cars whizzing past was quite another. For the first time I saw the depth of the addiction and the awful risks Rick and his friends were willing to take.

Maybe it was my presence, but after a moment of near-folly Rick suddenly made a decision. He gave his piece of crack to another guy, and we moved away. "I can't believe I did that!" he kept saying. "I turned it down."

I congratulated him effusively. "See, you can do it."

My enthusiasm came from his own minor victory, of course, but it also was a major plus for me. I was exhausted, my feet had blisters, I had a sunburn, my head was starting to ache and I had fire-ant bites all over one hand. The prospect of following Rick around while he went on a crack binge was almost too awful to contemplate.

The geographical heart of Rick's world is the Salvation Army on 10th Street. Practically everywhere he goes is within walking distance: Resurrection House, the day-labor office, the Sunoco station on Tamiami Trail (for snacks and the bathroom), Centennial Park, and that area of ill-repute farther north on the Trail, where drugs can be bought and sold, and prostitutes, both male and female, walk the streets.

The end of the day found us in Centennial Park, sitting on a patch of grass and, like so many other Sarasotans, trying to figure out what to do about dinner. The Salvation Army is free, but the food is supposedly not very good except on Sunday, when they seem to make an extra effort. Then there's always the option of foraging in a dumpster behind Wendy's or the 7-Eleven. I quickly came up with a better idea: dinner in a real restaurant, my treat.

Rick's first choice was Subway, where you can get two foot-longs after 5 p.m. for $8.99. Then he remembered a pizza parlor on Main Street. It's the talk of the Salvation Army-good food, cheap and within walking distance. The decision was made.

But first we walked back to the Sally. The homeless are not allowed in between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. Whether it's to clean the place or to make everybody get out and do something I'm not sure, but it means that there is always a knot of people hanging around. There's a porch in back that's not locked, which serves as a sort of de facto daytime social area.

The "good" guard was on duty, the one who is Rick's buddy and for whom he buys cigarettes. This was a stroke of luck that solved all our problems: He would let Rick in without ID, and we wouldn't have to sleep in a place I was having grave doubts about: the alley behind the building that used to house Badcock's Furniture. A concrete slab, roofless to be sure, but just feet away from a house occupied by a Mexican family. This way, if you are attacked, you can scream and wake up the Mexicans.

Rick has been attacked many times. Robbery is usually the motive. Thieves lie in wait outside certain convenience stores at certain times, when the homeless are likely to have just cashed their paychecks for day-labor jobs, for example, or they can attack you as you sleep. But worse than the thieves are the malicious beatings by gangs of kids. They pounce on the homeless sleeping outdoors, kicking and slugging. I'd already seen several examples of their handiwork, including a spectacular black eye.

We hung out on the porch for a while. Rick and his buddies used this time to catch up, exchange information, kid around with each other. I had already met many of them; now I looked around at the others. There were some newcomers, who sat there warily, and of course the women. Of all the homeless, the women were the hardest for me to get a handle on. Some seemed to be part of a couple. One was visibly pregnant. But women were tangential to the world of Rick and the other long-termers. Theirs was a masculine world, like that of cowboys or soldiers.

Given Rick's gregarious nature, it took us forever to get out of there. There is always one more person to greet and catch up with. So it was well after dark by the time we set off for dinner.

The area directly to the south of the Salvation Army is bright and sunny during the day, with several upscale design businesses moving in. But at night it takes on a different character entirely. It reminded me of an illustration from the old Grimm's Fairy Tales books-dark shadows with threatening silhouettes, of what you couldn't quite tell. It was a place of strange silences, then footsteps on the pavement. Where were they? Who was that? Homeless men? Drug dealers? Muggers? I'm doing something stupid and foolish, I told myself, and prayed to get out of there alive.

It was only a short couple of blocks but it seemed to take forever. Then, miraculously, the upscale design stores began appearing, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

We crossed Fruitville Road.

Suddenly, we were in another world. There were lights everywhere, shiny cars driving by, the most beautiful people on the street, going to the opera, going out to dinner. The library was all lit up, gorgeous blonde women sitting in the sidewalk café at Pino's. Rick growled appreciatively as he walked past them. I had noticed several times during the day that nothing caught his eye like a beautiful blonde in a Mercedes.

Sometimes Rick looks homeless and sometimes he doesn't. Tonight he had changed his clothes; he planned to work tomorrow, and his new outfit was more or less appropriate for construction work: a blue T-shirt, emblazoned on the back with a "thank you" message for donating blood, and a pair of brown uniform pants, several sizes too big and rather badly stained. The elastic waistband was shot, and he was forced to keep yanking his pants up, sometimes clutching them so they wouldn't fall down. So tonight he looked very homeless indeed.

We walked past Patrick's, and Rick peeked in the window. He asked me if I had ever been there. I said, sure, and told him what good burgers they had. I immediately realized my mistake. What if he wanted to go there? The thought of us seeking admittance and then sitting through a meal with everybody staring at us-it would have been so incredibly embarrassing for everybody concerned.

But then, wasn't that the whole point of the article?

I think Rick sensed my unease and didn't press the point. We moved on to the pizza joint, a much more informal place, rather like a storefront.

There were already some people from the Sally there, a man and woman surrounded by grocery bags from Whole Foods that contained not expensive groceries but rather all their worldly belongings. I could see the eyes of the proprietor as we walked in. There were only a handful of other customers; we were tipping the balance in a way that had him worried.

Also worried was the middle-class family having dinner. The parents became strangely quiet; the kids gaped openly.

Rick loves calzone, so we each ordered one. The proprietor was skittish but polite. He charged me for a soda refill, the first time that's happened in 20 years.

I was scared about the walk back. Fortunately we bumped into Cochise, who walked with us, giving us strength in numbers. Cochise was a tough, wiry guy with a backpack, long black hair and a thick pair of glasses. He was in a sour mood. He had a court date in the morning. The charge? "Illegal lodging." They caught him living in his car.

It began to rain. That's when I realized I'd left my long-sleeved flannel shirt at the pizza place.

From about a block away we reconnoitered the Sally, like a group of scouts spying on a fort. The "good" guard was there. But also, inexplicably, was the "bad" guard. What should we do now? The problem was complicated because Rick had three or four cans of beer he had been planning to smuggle in, for both drinking and bartering. He insisted there was a way, and he experimented with various concealment techniques, while I steeled myself for a night spent behind Badcock's Furniture store.

Strangely enough, we made it. Rick's little plan worked like a charm. The guards waved us right in and didn't ask-or rather demand-to see anything.

The idea of a night at the Salvation Army was so hard to imagine that I didn't even try. But still, I was determined to take everything in stride, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it might be.

Checking in was easy enough. I had to show my driver's license and fill out a one-page form. I told two lies: I checked the boxes for "homeless" and "unemployed." Then I was given a black mat. The man ahead of me got the last pair of sheets. Rick, who was already checked in, demanded that the sheet lady find some for me. He claimed he got a skin fungus from the mats. I suppose I should have done this myself, but I was so distracted by the sight in front of me that I was temporarily rendered speechless.

You really do sleep on the floor. You claim a mat-sized portion of the blue linoleum floor in the brightly lit men's locker room, and that's it. They did have dorm rooms if you got there real early or if you were on something called "pre-pay," but for the rest of us run-of-the-mill clients, it was strictly the floor.

The place was filling up fast, and all the good spots were already taken. I finally found a place on the far side of the room, next to two Mexican guys who apparently had IDs good enough to pass the scrutiny of the Salvation Army computers. The etiquette of the place worried me. How far should your mat be from anybody else's? How loudly could you talk? Where on earth were the bathrooms?

The doors locked at 9 p.m. At 9:15 many of the men had already called it a night. They were on their mats with the sheets pulled up and T-shirts or towels over their faces to block out the fluorescent lights. But many were still up. There was no television, but the men talked, rearranged their belongings or read. I snuck a peak at one book. It was the Bible, open to Ecclesiastes.

There was a small screened-in smoking porch off the locker room. I found a seat and spent the next two hours listening to the conversation. At first most of the discussion was about jobs. I was surprised at how many of the men worked. Maybe not every day, but it seemed that more often than not, the men on the smoking porch headed over to the day-labor place every morning at 6. It's located virtually across the street, in that building most of us have been driving past for years that used to house Pedro's Ornamental Iron Works.

One young man wanted as much employment information as possible. He struck me as the Salvation Army's ideal client: 19 years old, new in town, an articulate and ambitious black man who was eager to get out of the Sally and on his own two feet. He grilled the other men about job leads. The jobs are there, but there are many problems-you have to take a drug test, the employers don't pay you when they say they will, you get in fights at the job site, the work is dangerous. One guy, a redheaded kid named Jason, had just lucked into what sounded like a terrific job: moving furniture for $11 a hour, off the books. I kept staring at Jason's left hand, wondering how he could possibly pick up anything; it was scarred and mangled so badly it was almost unrecognizable as a hand. "What happened?" I asked him. "I shot myself," he told me.

I was one of the oldest men there and doubted whether the labor pool would have any jobs for me, but a man named Tom, also well over 50, assured me this was not the case. "They give the old guys the easy stuff," he said. "Sweeping construction sites and picking up pieces of wood."

Around 11 the conversation on the smoking porch became more and more sporadic as, one by one, the men turned in. One young man kept sitting there smoking cigarette after cigarette (he rolled them all himself). He looked more like a senior at Pine View than a homeless man, and though I wanted to learn his story (he had been among the little group of crack smokers), he radiated a "leave-me-alone" attitude. A counselor/staff member came out to talk to him; apparently he had a court date in the morning and needed a pep talk. It wasn't very peppy. The staff person told him that things would get worse before they got better and that the only good thing was that he wasn't in jail-yet. The young man stared straight ahead, not saying a word. His eyes seethed with contempt for everybody and everything.

I went back inside to my mat. Getting ready for bed was easy enough; you didn't even have to take off your clothes. I found the bathroom, across the darkened dorm room, which was heavy with body heat and snoring. Fortunately it wasn't as bad as Rick had led me to believe.

Rick, meanwhile, was turning into the party animal of the Sally. As long as there was one more person still up, one more beer to drink in the shadows, one more joint to sneak, he was available. His frat-boy streak was becoming more pronounced. The calzone (he sold the leftover portion for $4) was giving him gas, and he began to break wind at astonishing volume. He found this hilarious, but many of the men did not. They yelled out that he was "disrespecting" them, which only caused him to do it more until I had to beg him to stop, fearing a fistfight.

Finally he settled down on his mat, next to mine. I was relatively comfortable but had nothing to use as a pillow. Rick showed me how to use my shoes. You put them together and scrunch them down, then put a rolled-up T-shirt over them.

I looked at my watch. People had been asking me the time all evening, as I was one of the few guys who had a watch. It was 11:30.

"When do they turn the lights out?" I asked.

"They don't."

As we lay there waiting to drift off to sleep, Rick began to confide in me. He had a scheme he was excited about. He would buy a boat and live on Sarasota Bay. There was a guy who had figured out a way to acquire salvaged boats quite cheaply and would sell them for $600. "Just think," he said. "We can fish and drink beer." I was flattered to be included and didn't have the heart to point out the obvious: that Rick knew nothing about maintaining a boat, that a salvaged boat would have many problems and might very well sink, that the rich waterfront property owners hated this, and there were all sorts of laws underfoot to eliminate this practice.

He had something else on his mind, it turned out. He had a little trouble getting it out, but finally he did: What was I going to write about him? "I don't know," I answered truthfully. "What do you want me to write?"

He thought about this. He was worried that by letting me glimpse his world it would rile people up about the homeless, particularly the drug use.

"But it's there. It's part of it," I reminded him.

"I know," he said. "But I'm a good person. Will you write that?"

"Of course."

He told me about his mother. She was an unhappy woman, a drug addict also, who would often threaten to kill him. Her meanest trick was to put him in the bathtub and then tell him she was going to throw a plugged-in hair dryer into the water.

He started to cry.

"Let's go to sleep," I told him as gently as I could.

The first alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Amazingly, I had actually slept. For the next two hours Rick and I dozed as the other men rose and got ready for work. Then, at 5:30, another set of lights came on, even stronger, and we got up and made our way to the dining room for breakfast-pastries, doughnuts, coffee, oatmeal with yogurt and strawberries.

We left the Sally to walk over to the labor pool. We had barely gotten out of the gate when we heard the news: There had been a murder. Last night, when we had been walking back from Main Street, a homeless Mexican guy had been stabbed to death during a robbery about a block and a half up 10th Street. From the corner we could see the police cars and the yellow tape.

We stared with morbid fascination, but only for a moment or so. Time was short-it was almost full daylight by now, and the good jobs would go quickly. Inside the building were at least a hundred people, some from the Sally, some not, all ages and ethnicities, men and women, all looking for day work. Rick found the sign-up sheet. In the office I could see row after row of red hard hats and shovels. Vans were in the parking lot already, taking people off to the work sites.

I said good-bye and shook Rick's hand. Then I went up the street to the TV station, where I had left my car. I hated the way I smelled-a combination of rancid sweat and cigarette smoke. I wanted very badly to take a shower. The police still had the intersection blocked off where the murder took place, and it took me a while to figure out how to get around it and head on home.

Senior editor Robert Plunket is the author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.

Filed under
Show Comments